Reinvigorated Trump returns to Michigan for re-election rally

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
President Donald Trump talks with reporters before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Friday, March 22, 2019.

President Donald Trump faces political headwinds as he seeks to reclaim Michigan in 2020 but will enter Thursday night's re-election rally in Grand Rapids with at least one major legal threat behind him. 

The first-term Republican has appeared reinvigorated in recent days after confirmation that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation did not establish collusion between Trump's 2016 campaign and the Russian government that interfered in the election.

While it may be premature — Mueller stopped short of exonerating the president on possible obstruction of justice, and his full report has not been made public — experts predict Trump will tout the news in his first public rally since the report's summary release.

The president will do so in front of thousands of supporters at the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, a city where he capped his 2016 campaign with a raucous late-night rally and prediction of a victory few pundits had thought possible.

Like the president, Trump's supporters “feel vindicated” by U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller report, said GOP strategist John Sellek. 

‘It’s given them a huge boost of energy moving forward. So certainly, you’d expect the president to celebrate while he’s here in a state he needs to win again in 2020.”

While critics are calling for release of the full Mueller report, “I think Republicans are feeling emboldened by the results” of the summary, said Democratic strategist T.J. Bucholz.

“And I think that in a state like Michigan, that’s going to be such a battleground, that’s going to be a message we’re going to see from the Republican Party and from the president here.”

The visit will be Trump's 18th rally in Michigan and his sixth in the Grand Rapids area since he began his campaign for president in June 2015, according to his campaign. It will be Trump's first trip to Michigan since April 2018 when he rallied in Washington Township instead of attending the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner.

Targeting Michigan

Trump is reportedly planning a massive re-election campaign that will target key voters in swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin that he narrowly won in 2016, according to the Washington Post.

The New York businessman won Michigan by 10,704 votes three years ago. He won support from 47.5 percent of statewide voters and topped Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by two-tenths of one percentage point en route to his Electoral College triumph.

The president will have a built-in advantage as an incumbent, but his re-election effort in Michigan will require “a pretty substantial effort to broaden out his coalition and reach out to college-educated suburban voters who abandoned the Republican Party in 2018," said pollster Richard Czuba of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group Inc.

The firm's late January poll found Trump was starting his re-election bid in a difficult position. In a survey of 600 likely Michigan voters, 31 percent said they wanted to re-elect Trump, 53 percent said they would choose someone new, and 15 percent said their decision would depend on who the Democratic nominee is.

At the time, more than 53 percent of Michigan voters said they had an unfavorable opinion of Trump, compared with 37.5 percent favorable. More than 52 percent gave him negative job approval marks, compared with 44 percent positive.

Despite a relatively strong economy and tax cut law often touted by Trump, just 27.5 percent of Michigan voters said they think the nation is on the right track.

The summary of the Mueller report by Barr, who along with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded there was not enough evidence the president obstructed the investigation, are unlikely to have a major impact on poll numbers, Czuba said. Voter attitudes have not changed much lately and appear “somewhat baked,” he said.

“How you feel about Donald Trump has been determined already, and the Mueller report is not going to change how you view him,” Czuba said.

Michigan is shaping up to be a presidential battleground and is considered one of five “toss-up” states by the Cook Political Report, which also identified Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The three Midwest states, which had acted as a “Blue Wall” for Democrats before Trump narrowly won them in 2016, “are the most tenuous for Trump” heading into 2020, Amy Walters of the Cook Political Report wrote in a recent analysis. 

“Not only did he fail to reach 50 percent (in those states) in 2016, but in 2018 GOP Senate and gubernatorial candidates in all three states were defeated,” she said.

New battleground

Kent County, where Trump will rally supporters on Thursday, could be a key region in 2020, Czuba said. Once a reliable GOP stronghold, Trump narrowly won Kent County in 2016, but Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer carried it in 2018.

“Republicans need to take back Kent County to re-elect the president, so this is, frankly, a smart political move,” Czuba said of the Trump visit.

A Democratic super political action committee known as American Bridge plans to spend $50 million on campaign ads in the Midwest. The effort aims to weaken one of Trump’s constituencies — white working-class voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Several Democratic presidential candidates have already visited Michigan — most recently former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. They have so far focused on the vote-rich region of Metro Detroit that will likely play a crucial role in their primary election.

“West Michigan is kind of the new Michigan battleground,” Sellek said.

Republicans need to pair significant votes from Kent and Ottawa counties — the fourth and eighth largest in the state — with strong performances in rural regions they increasingly dominate.

While Grand Rapids has become a liberal pocket, West Michigan as a whole is “still more conservative” than Oakland County and other suburban regions that are trending toward Democrats, Sellek said.

That means who gets to nominate the next Supreme Court justice should Ruth Bader Ginsburg step down “is going to be a more important factor in their choice for president in West Michigan than it probably is in Southeast Michigan,” he said.

Michigan Democrats swept the top of the ticket in 2018 because of a surge in voter turnout. The fate of the party’s 2020 presidential nominee may depend on whether record levels of motivation continue “as they go through what’s going to be a grueling primary,” Czuba said.

“If Democratic voters aren’t motivated, Donald Trump can take Michigan again,” he said.

Health care could again emerge as a major issue in 2020 after the Trump administration this week shifted its legal policy on the Affordable Care Act, arguing the law should be overturned.

Whitmer and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel are fighting to preserve the law, which provides most of the funding for the state’s Healthy Michigan Medicaid expansion plan that covers nearly 690,000 residents.

Trump targeted working-class voters here in 2016 with promises to grow the auto industry and return jobs from overseas, a pledge partially undermined by General Motor Co.’s plans to lay off thousands of employees and idle four plants, including Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly and Warren Transmission.

The president assailed the automaker last week in Ohio, demanding GM keep open its assembly plant in Lordstown that is also slated for closure. Trump continued his pressure on GM and the United Auto Workers, again demanding they speed up negotiations.

Amid Trump's barrage of criticism, GM on Friday confirmed it will invest $300 million in its Orion Assembly Plant to build a new electric Chevrolet that was originally slated for production overseas.

Separately, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is seeking state and local incentives for plans to invest $4.5 billion in five Michigan plants and create 6,500 jobs in Metro Detroit.

Polls suggest some Michigan voters “have had a bit of buyer’s remorse” after voting for Trump three years ago, Bucholz said, citing auto industry uncertainty and complaints over middle-class tax returns despite Trump’s tax cut.

But Michigan could be the “canary in the coal mine for this country” in 2020 because voters here are interested in “hot issues” that could define the race, including Trump’s plan to build a wall at the nation’s southern border with Mexico, Bucholz said.

“I don’t think this is gonna be Donald Trump’s last stop here,” he added. “Donald Trump needs Michigan to break for him to win the presidency. Ohio is not the swing state it once was. Now the swing states are Michigan and Pennsylvania. He has to have both of those states if he’s going to win re-election.”